Cellists? Do you ever wish you played the flute?

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Whenever I tell anyone that I play the cello they tend to say something like:

“I love the cello, it’s such beautiful instrument.” 

Then I remember how lucky I am.  To play the cello is to love the cello. What I really mean is: you have to love the cello to play it. Is that because of its soulful sound, its potential to express deep emotion? No. It’s because it’s really annoying to carry! And if you do play the cello you will certainly be asked many times over:

“Do you ever wish you played the flute?”

I never thought about whether I loved the cello or not when I began to play. Just before I started secondary school, my mum took out a cello from the back of her wardrobe. I’d never seen it before, even though I’d used that wardrobe many times to play ‘hide and seek’. She said I could learn to play it when I went to my new school. On my first day, the music teacher asked us to write down if we would like to play an instrument and if so what, I wrote down “Yes. Cello.”

But I didn’t really ‘get into’ the cello until I was a teenager and I joined a local youth orchestra. Even though rehearsals were on Saturday mornings – I loved it! I got up early and took two buses, changing at Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens. The worst thing was, there was really only one seat where I could sit easily with a cello: the first one that has a wider space (designated nowadays as a priority seat). It was usually empty at that time on a Saturday morning but if someone was there, in that seat, I would have to go to the back and risk getting flung across the bus when it went round a corner, hanging on to that cello in its cloth case and terrified that it would get broken.

After rehearsals, seeing as I was in town, I liked to go window-shopping, to a record shop called Rare Records and to Gibbs, a second-hand book shop or go and browse in the music library at St Peter’s Square, except that I had that cello to carry around with me. It was a real nuisance. 

Quite often, I’d get a lift from my mum especially to concerts. One time she had to hire a car as ours had broken down. It was bigger than ours and amazingly the cello fitted into the boot. But when we arrived at the pre-concert rehearsal Mum couldn’t get the boot open. The key didn’t seem to work. She even went to the police to ask if they could get it open for us! But they said these cars have a separate key to open the boot, to make them difficult to break into. We didn’t have another key and there wasn’t time to get one so I had to watch the concert from the audience and not play. Everyone asked me why I wasn’t playing. I was so embarrassed!

Not as embarrassed as I was when I had to go to a different room from usual, for my  cello lessons at school. I had to walk through a classroom full of boys. It was the most excruciating experience, not least because I was shy and skinny, in a frumpy uniform – box-pleated navy skirt and knee length grey socks. I could feel them all watching me and sniggering. It was a few months before lessons resumed in the usual room, to my relief. I couldn’t have done that much longer!

There were many things that could have put me off playing the cello but overriding them all, was the thrill I got from playing the cello in the youth orchestra. We played Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth. I didn’t always understand the notation but learnt to copy the other players. I was in awe of the first clarinettist and first oboe-player playing their impressive solos but was glad I belonged in the security of the cello section and loved being part of the full-orchestra sound with strings, woodwind, brass and percussion in full force.

I’d go home and tell Mum all about it, singing the cello part! And she’d say, “that doesn’t sound like the tune, what does the tune go like?” I had concentrated so hard on learning the cello part, I thought that was the tune!

A turning point came when on one of my trips to Rare Records I bought an LP of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a famous recording by Jacqueline du Pré. I listened to it over and over and fell in love with it … its dramatic opening, soul searching phrases and soaring melodies. “So that’s what a cello’s meant to sound like!” Years later, studying for my degree, when my teacher suggested I learn the Elgar for my performance exam, I was so excited, I rushed off up town, straight away, to buy the music. And as I swept my bow across those opening chords, I was in my element. Nothing was ever going to put me off playing the cello! Do I wish I played the flute? Not in a million years!

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A Cure for Homesickness

Over the past decade, my musical studies have taken me on a virtual world tour. I have enjoyed learning to play Indonesian gamelan, Indian sitar and tabla, learning West African dance and playing in a Chinese orchestra but all of a sudden a strange thing has happened. Just lately during lockdown I have become homesick for England. Due to pandemic restrictions here where I live in Scotland, I haven’t been over the border for over a year. So what better cure than to let the music take me there? 

Join me on a virtual English journey:

The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth

Already, I can see the English countryside, I’m a child making daisy chains and paddling in streams on long summer days. That was George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, based on an English folk song. Butterworth was one of the composers, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, who collected and transcribed hundreds of folk songs in rural England before WW1. The influence on their own musical style is clear as day: their compositions evoke a kind of pastoral idyll. Sadly, Butterworth never made it back from the war, dying on the Somme in 1916 aged only 31, which makes this piece even more poignant.

From a different era now, let’s visit Shakespeare’s England.

Mal Sims by Giles Farnaby

I love this arrangement of the music of Giles Farnaby played by the Philip Jones brass ensemble, originally written for keyboard. Farnaby was a keyboard instrument maker by trade as well as a composer and I imagine him trying out his compositions in his workshop.

Now time for another tramp across the fields:

Gustav Holst: A Moorside Suite arranged for string orchestra.

A Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst was originally written for brass band but I think this string version is equally effective at conjuring up an English landscape. Holst, born in 1874 is most famous for The Planets written in 1913, a brilliant piece that sounds so modern it could have been composed yesterday.

Now another trip back in time to the 16th century to hear the music of John Dowland, a composer who excelled in the fashionable melancholic style of the era. This is an arrangement of The Earle of Essex Galiard – one of his more cheerful numbers.

From a century later, a song by Henry Purcell – a brilliant example of his use of a ground bass (a bass line which repeats itself throughout). To me this bass line is a melody in itself and the feeling of security it gives, allows the melody to flow. It’s so beautiful! No wonder Purcell is thought of as one of England’s greatest composers.

Travelling forward to the 20th century, let’s hear from a composer whose most famous piece is based on a theme by Purcell. It is of course Benjamin Britten, who is associated with the area of England where he spent much of his life: East Anglia. Its wild, coastal landscape inspired his operatic works: Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. In this piece, his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, I love the way he characterises each instrumental section – especially when it comes to the percussion – you can still hear the tune in your head when they play. When Britten was composing this in the post-war era, there was a resurgence of culture in the UK and a belief in its value in healing a nation: something we could do with again as we come out of this pandemic…

Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten

I’ve mentioned my memories of the English countryside but I spent my childhood in a northern suburb of Manchester. In my teens, we moved to a town in Lancashire at the edge of the Pennine hills: the town of Haslingden which happens to be the birthplace of the composer Alan Rawsthorne. Here’s the opening theme of his music for the film The Cruel Sea about the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Whilst attempting to obey orders to attack one another, both sides realise the danger of their mission puts them at the mercy of the sea and by implication, the impossible demands of those in command. Dramatic and stirring …

As I come from northern England, of course I have to include brass band music: associated with the area from the time when mills and collieries started up their own bands. Industry may have gone but the bands continue. I’ve chosen the Brighouse and Rastrick band. I studied music in Huddersfield in west Yorkshire and one my fellow music students played in this band, in fact I think he still does. Here they are playing Cornet Carillon which reminds me of another quintessential English sound – the peeling of English church bells.

Let’s get back to our rural idyll with the music of Gerald Finzi. I first came across Finzi’s music when I was playing in a chamber orchestra at Huddersfield. We performed Dies Natalis with one of my talented fellow students singing the solo. I loved the string parts, the gorgeous harmonies and the plaintive melodies. Here’s another evocative piece by Finzi called Forlana, from his 5 Bagatelles.

Music from the great tradition of English choral music next. Herbert Howells’ hymns and psalm settings are a well-loved part of choral evensong repertoire. This is his Hymn to St Cecilia – the patron saint of music.

Herbert Howells: Hymn to St Cecilia

On with our journey, we’re almost there …

Seascape by Ruth Gipps

Music by Ruth Gipps, proving you don’t have to be a man to compose great music. Although at that time, it helped you to get recognition. Born in 1921, she was a professional oboist, conductor and a prolific composer. I am ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of her until she was BBC radio 3 composer of the week recently.

If it hasn’t done it already, the music from now on is going to tug at your heart strings so turn the volume up and prepare to shed a tear. I can’t imagine hearing the following music without associating it with England but for me much of this music evokes a time not just a place, a time I can’t ever get back.

And although I sound English, I feel quite Scottish, having lived here for most of my adult life. I think of myself as a European and a citizen of the world rather than particularly English. 

This musical journey is about missing family, it’s about fond memories, of places I have spent happy times and of lost loved ones.

So to take us to the end of our tour, here are two pieces which indulge my nostalgia with an old-fashioned English melody: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves and Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.

Do you have a piece of music that reminds you of home? I’d love to hear about it.

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Music from the Arctic

I am always excited to find out about musical instruments from different parts of the world and am fascinated by the inventive ways people have found of creating them out of everything from a coconut to an armadillo shell. My most surprising recent discovery happened when I came across Norwegian musician Tjerje Isungset who plays musical instruments made from ice! Yes, ice! Who doesn’t love the sound of ice on those coldest of mornings, crunching frozen snow under foot or hearing a frozen puddle creak as you step on it? Tjerje Isungset has been exploring the potential of this unlikely and transitory material for many years and I have recently been catching up with his music online. 

Here’s Tjerje Isungset playing a xylophone created out of huge slabs of ice cut to size (an ‘iceofon’) which complements Lena Nymark’s singing in a performance recorded in the Arctic in 2014. Two sets of ice chimes add to the bell-like texture and if you’ve never seen this before keep watching till about 3.35” for an unlikely ice instrument.

One good idea often leads to another and so in this next clip, from a performance recorded in support of Greenpeace in 2019, the range of ice instruments has expanded to include an ice-cello! Now, I thought I had seen everything cello-related – from bowing the spike, to using the spike to (appear to) stab someone in a performance – but an ice cello is new to me and although it works amazingly, I don’t think I’ll be trying that (nor the stabbing thing) any time soon.

My favourite clip of Isungset’s performances is from a concert recorded in 2018 that was broadcast online last year, as part of the Bergen International Festival, when we were in the middle of lockdown. 

There’s a huge block of ice centre stage. Terje Isungset pummels a hollow in it, with two sticks of ice, making a rhythmic crunchy sound to accompany a folky sounding melody, sung by vocalist Maria Skranes, who is also on electronics and percussion – ice percussion of course. She clinks the oblong ice tiles, suspended on strings, as Terje taps a hollow block of ice, making a bell-like sound, plays long notes on the icehorn or with gloved fingers, taps a melody on the iceofon.

How this works indoors I have no idea and am too engrossed in the music to think about it. I love the sounds of these ice instruments combining with Anders Jorman’s wide-ranging double bass playing and Arvo Henrikson’s smooth jazz trumpet to make a gorgeous mellow vibe. The band are appropriately enough, dressed for the Arctic.

What makes this concert particularly special is that it features singers from three distinct vocal traditions from the Arctic, each remarkable in itself. When put together, Tuvan throat-singing, Inuit throat-singing (katajjaq) and Sami joik, in collaboration with Isungset’s ice-band, create a unique sound world.

These three traditions are now well known here in the West but I remember having to stop the car in amazement the first time I heard Tuvan throat singing on the radio. The technique involves the vocalist making two or more sounds at the same time, producing melodies on harmonics above a resonant low-pitch. It’s a sound that reflects its origins, inspired by the high plains where hunters would imitate animal calls and the sound of the whistling breeze. We hear Radik Tülüsh (from the band Huun-Huur-Tu) creating astonishing sounds.

The sound of Katajjaq also stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. It’s performed here by Beatrice Deer and Pauyungie Nutaraaluk, superb exponents of this style of throat-singing in which the duo alternate back and forth, making breathy sounds or imitating the sounds of creatures. It was originally a game made up by Inuit women for their own entertainment but in recent times was recognised for its cultural significance and revived for public performance. 

The third vocal tradition highlighted is joik, a semi-improvised chant-like singing which is strongly connected with Sami identity and spirituality. It’s performed here by Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska, who is from a family of joikers from northern Norway.

These striking musical voices are heard in turn and then seamlessly interweaving, subtly mingling with instrumental and ice sounds. The effect is atmospheric at times, then the mood shifts, as the band pick up in folky jazz style with Maria Skranes’ exquisite vocals. Electronics and video art are used skilfully to add the finishing touches to this stunningly inventive performance.

The whole concert is musically and technically sophisticated but playful at the same time and it couldn’t be more at one with nature and the environment of the Arctic. It carries a serious message about the loss of habitat that climate change is bringing as the polar ice melts. This music seems to spring, literally (and I mean literally) from the elements. As the ice melts when will the message drip through…

Watch the whole concert here … set aside an hour, it’s a real treat. If you are in a rush, watch the last 10 -15 minutes.

  • Terje Isungset icedrums, iceofon, icehorns, icepercussion
  • Beatrice Deer, Pauyungie Nutaraaluk Inuit throat-singing
  • Radik Tülüsh (Huun-Huur-Tu) Tuvan throat-singing
  • Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska joik
  • Maria Skranes vocals, electronics, icepercussion
  • Arve Henriksen trumpet, vocals
  • Anders Jormin double bass
  • Anastasia Isachsen video, lighting design
  • Atle Sekkingstad sound design​

If you don’t have time right now, this shorter clip, from the premiere of Arctic Icemusic in concert at Norway’s folk festival 2016, shows highlights including throat-singing and joik.

If you’d like to hear more of Isunget’s music, I’d recommend the following track from the album Beauty of Winter at All Ice Records. It features Inuit throat singing (at the start) followed by Tuvan throat singing and of course ice music. Don’t forget to put on a warm jumper.

Edinburgh’s Music Across Borders

One thing I didn’t expect when I came to live in Edinburgh in 1999, was that I would start learning music from the other side of the world which would some years later lead to a Masters in ethnomusicology. Yet soon after I moved in, I saw a notice in a local shop about an African drumming and dance class. I thought it sounded fun, went along and so began a metaphorical journey, letting music and dance take me around the globe. Since then I have joined in Brazilian samba drumming and dance, Indian sitar and tabla classes, a Chinese orchestra, a Kunqu class and an Indonesian gamelan – a small sample of the music and dance happening here in Scotland.

Last year, many of these diverse groups took part in a series of concerts in Edinburgh’s St Cecilia’s Hall. The series ‘Music Across Borders’ was devised and organised by Alec Cooper and Chen Qinhan with the aim of bringing together music-making from different countries, enabling musicians and audiences to meet and exchange ideas. There was music from Morocco, India, China, Spain, Japan, Brazil, West Africa, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. The fourth concert was planned to feature collaborations between musicians from each of the groups but unfortunately it had to be cancelled because of Covid-19. Instead there was an informal gathering of musicians outdoors playing together some of the music they had been preparing before lockdown.

To find out about this project which will resume once it is safe to rehearse together, have a look at the website:

https://www.musicacrossborders.uk

and the following short documentary filmed by Adam Howells.

Thank you for the Music, Mum

On Mothers’ Day 2021, I am republishing this article from 2018, written as a tribute to my wonderful mum who filled my childhood with music and happy times. 

I have seen queries from parents wondering how to encourage their child to enjoy classical music. My mum introduced me to classical music in such a subtle way that I was a fan before I knew it. This is how she did it, starting with a few choice records.

It began with dance. Trained as ballet dancer and teacher, she knew the repertoire that would have my sister and me twirling round the living room. Tchaikovsky: music from ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Swan Lake’ and this Waltz of the Flowers from the ‘Nutcracker Suite’. I loved the sound of the harp swirling up and down, the bubbling clarinet notes and then when the sweeping melody on the strings came, I was spinning with joy.

As children, Mum protected us from scary things so we had no idea that the story behind this next piece involved frightening trolls. In the Hall of the Mountain King from the ‘Peer Gynt Suite’ by Greig had us playing a game, stepping around the room on tiptoe, hiding behind the settee, jumping up and then getting more and more boisterous as the music increased in speed and volume.

Track 2: In the Hall of the Mountain King from the ‘Peer Gynt Suite’.

Music that made us laugh was a also big hit and we thought this Clog Dance from the ballet ‘La Fille Mal Gardée’ was very funny – especially the bit that sounds like slipping on a banana skin and then later, when the sound of the clogs tapping seems to get all mixed up.

Track 3: Clog Dance from ‘La Fille Mal Gardée’.

When she became a primary school teacher, Mum had responsibility for music and dance at the school my sister and I went to so we experienced the music at home and at school. Walking into school assembly we were accompanied by music such as Holst’s ‘The Planets’ or Prokoviev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Track 4: Jupiter from ‘The Planets’.

Track 5:  The Knights’ Dance from ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Her friend and colleague was a drama specialist and together they put on school plays. Musical soundtracks were drawn from Stravinsky’s music for the ballet ‘Petrouchka’ or ‘The Firebird’, Britten’s Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’ or Kodaly’s ‘Hary Janos Suite’: music that had character and captured the imagination or had exciting rhythms and/or enticing melodies.

Track 6: Danse Russe from ‘Petrouchka’.

Track 7: Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’.

Track 8: Hungarian Dance from ‘Hary Janos Suite’.

Mum directed the school choir and when we went in for a music festival singing This Little Babe from Britten’s ‘A Ceremony of Carols’, I remember having to concentrate hard when the music went into two parts and marvelling at the sound created by the echoing effect of this canon.

Track 9: This Little Babe from ‘A Ceremony of Carols’.

The structure of music interested Mum and when she taught dance she was also teaching us to listen. To the second movement of Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ (known as the ‘Game of Pairs’), she asked our class to dance in twos, choosing which instrumental line to follow: you could be the bassoons, the oboes, the clarinets, the flutes, the pizzicato strings, bowed strings, trumpets or trombones but could only move when your instrument was playing.

Track 10: Movement II. Giuoco delle coppie from the ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ by Bartok.

Mum loved discovering new pieces and when we listened to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, she was always excited to hear the latest addition to the repertoire. When she first heard the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter, she loved the bit where the beat changes and then changes back again. She bought the music and next Christmas we were singing it at school. One year, we went to Cambridge, to the Chapel at King’s College to hear the service. The music was wonderful: the harmonies, the descants and the organ playing. And after all that uplifting music, we came out into the twilight as the snow was beginning to fall. It felt magical and remains a special memory.

Track 11: Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter.

Music was like an exciting discovery with Mum. She told us about her music teacher at school in Hendon, London, taking her to orchestral rehearsals with great conductors and how she was told to listen to the bass line or middle parts and not just follow the tune. She revelled in the clever compositional techniques like the melody in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini which, towards the second half of the piece, is turned upside down and made into a new melody.

Track 12: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov.

Or the two tunes played at the same time in the last movement of the St Paul’s Suite by Holst.

Track 13: St Paul’s Suite.

She loved the music of English composers: Purcell, Holst, Vaughan-Williams, Walton and Britten, having heard many of their works in concerts, during the vibrant cultural resurgence of post-war Britain. She talked of the excitement of attending concerts at the Festival of Britain at London’s Southbank. I found a programme that she had kept from one of the first performances of Britten’s opera Billy Budd from 1951.

Perhaps in that spirit of the Festival of Britain, there wasn’t any elitism about this musical education: she felt that everyone should have access to great music. She told me about a boy in school who’d asked her: “Where do you find all this music?”. He’d never heard anything like it at home.

Track 14: The Cuckoo from ‘Folk Songs of the Seasons’ by Vaughan Williams.

Track 15: Popular Song from Facade by Walton.

But we were exposed to an eclectic mix too. We sang along to Pinky and Perky on the TV, and had records of the soundtracks from musicals we’d seen at the pictures: we sang along to  A Spoonful of Sugar from ‘Mary Poppins’, My Favourite Things from ‘The Sound of Music’ and I could have danced all Night from ‘My Fair Lady’.

Mum had the record Time Out by Dave Brubeck and we loved listening to that and a record of the jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie. And we loved The Swingle Singers especially when they sang Bach.

Track 16: Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto no.3 by Bach: The Swingle Singers.

My sister and I went for piano lessons, (our brother resisted and taught himself the guitar and drums) and so Mum hardly got a look in at the piano but when she did, this is one of the pieces she used to play: Mouvement Perpetuel by Poulenc. It sounded lively and jolly to me as a child. I didn’t notice the rather dark undertone that I hear when I listen to it now.

Track 17: Mouvement Perpétuel by Poulenc.

When I went secondary school, Mum encouraged me take up the cello – from the back of her wardrobe she took the cello she had been given as a 21st birthday present and said I could learn to play it. So I did, without realising what a gift that was and how it would become my instrument and a major part of my life.

When I was about fourteen, Mum took me to a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Manchester Cathedral. The timbre of the orchestra and solo singers was startlingly beautiful in that resonant acoustic and when the chorus joined in it was such a glorious sound I was quite overwhelmed. I remember hearing a viola da gamba for the first time and wondering what it was, realising it wasn’t a cello, although it looked similar. I loved its raw sound. At the end of the first half we went home for tea and then Mum asked me if I’d like to go back for the second half. I couldn’t understand why she was asking me, of course I wanted to go back for the second half. Speaking to her years later I was telling her what a powerful effect that music had on me and she said I had been really quiet and she didn’t know if I had liked it or not! I think I had been completely spellbound.

Track 18 – 19 From the St. Matthew Passion by Bach

A few years later Mum was lecturing in education with responsibility for dance at a college of education, working in the field of contemporary dance and we had moved to a cottage in Lancashire. Music was our evenings’ and weekend’s entertainment: we listened to Mum’s records of Copland’s Rodeo, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite and Satie’s Gymnopodies (in a version for classical guitar).

Track 20: Buckaroo Holiday from ‘Rodeo’ by Copland.

Track 21: Dance 1 from ‘Jazz Suite’ No.2 by Shostakovich.

Track 22: Gymnopodie no.1 by Satie.

She continued to play music that made us laugh. We thought the beginning of Divertissement by Ibert sounded funny with its clashing chords on the piano.

Track 23: Divertissement by Ibert.

As a teenager I started to collect some records of my own: Sibelius Symphonies, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Jaqueline du Pré as soloist and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

My love for music led to a career in music but more importantly, immense joy from the music I have heard or played and continue to do so. It’s because of Mum’s enthusiasm for music and the way she carefully nurtured an interest during my early years that music became central to my life.

The last piece in this tribute is by Mum’s favourite composer: Ravel. This music is full of poignancy for me as it arouses a complex range of emotions beneath its apparent simplicity.

Track 24: Adagio Assai from the Piano Concerto in G by Ravel.

To hear all the music in full go to my playlist: Thank you for the Music, Mum.